Archive for October 3, 2012

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

October 3, 2012 38 comments

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

[Deep male voice speaking American English with gritted teeth and clenched jaw, the kind that makes non-native English speakers long for a clear BBC voice]

Previsously on Book Around The Corner:

Otherwise, unread blog entries are piling up in my mailbox, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m still reading The Turn of the Screw and it seems that no tool is going to fix my interest on it. I have to hurry though, or I’ll screw up for my Book Club meeting on Thursday. Yes, I know, the pun is terrible but a weekend of waiting lines turned my brain into mush. I need a fix, cause I’m going down…

Did Emma manage to finish The Turn of the Screw in time for her book club meeting? The suspense is unbearable… Let’s hear her out!

Actually, I had a lot of trouble with The Turn of the Screw and I didn’t finish it on time. I was relieved that the others from the book club felt the same. They had been more conscientious than me and had read the book anyway. I was determined to finish it afterwards, to discover the ending by myself and write a proper billet. Here is the story:

A mysterious gentleman in London has the care of his nephew Miles and his niece Flora. He doesn’t want to get involved in their education and sends them to the country under the care of a governess. The narrator of the Turn of the Screw is that governess. She arrives at Bly, the estate in the country where the children are settled. Mrs Grose is a servant who lives on the estate and took take of Flora until the governess arrives. The governess finds Flora and then Miles quite charming and likeable. Miles was expelled from boarding school for something so awful that it’s never clearly said. One night, while the governess is having a walk in the park, she sees a ghost on one of the towers of the house. She soon discovers that there isn’t one but two ghosts and that they are Miss Jessel, the former governess and a male servant named Quint. She also discovers that the children see the ghosts too.

I’m still trying to understand why I didn’t like it while it’s so praised. I loved the other James I’ve read before, so it’s not the writer. That must be the genre: a ghost story, referenced as a Gothic tale by James himself:

Was there a “secret” at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?

I’m French, as you may already know and I wonder if I didn’t have a strong stroke of Frenchness while reading this. First the 17th century, René Descartes and his rationalism came in the way; scepticism won the battle and I didn’t manage to accept the concept of ghost as a prerequisite to the story. Second, what could have Miles done to get expelled from school for such an unnamable thing? The naughty 18th century popped up and twisted my views. And of course, you have the coded letters between George Sand and Alfred de Musset at the beginning of the 19th century. It seemed to me that James had sown seeds of sex and pedophilia between the lines. The ghosts, Miss Jessen and Quint are supposed to be scoundrels but the reader never gets to know exactly what they did. I thought “don’t beat around the bush and just tell us the scandalous details”. Well, was it even possible to give the details in Victorian England? So isn’t the ghost environment just a pretext to tell us entirely another story and get around the censorship?

Here is Mrs Grose talking to the governess; she slips and lets her new friend guess that Quint’s behaviour toward Miles was gross:

And you tell me they were ‘great friends’?”“Oh, it wasn’t HIM!” Mrs Grose with emphasis declared. “It was Quint’s own fancy. To play with him, I mean, I mean—to spoil him.” She paused a moment; then she added: “Quint was much too free.” This gave me, straight from my vision of his face—SUCH a face!—a sudden sickness of disgust. “Too free with MY boy?” “Too free with everyone!” Vous me dites qu’ils étaient grands amis ? – Oh ! pas lui ! » déclara Mrs. Grose avec intention. C’était le genre de Quint… de jouer avec lui… je veux dire, de le gâter. – Elle se tut, un instant, puis ajouta : – Quint prenait trop de libertés. » À ces mots, évoquant subitement une vision de son visage, – de quel visage ! – j’éprouvai une nausée de dégoût. « Des libertés avec mon garçon ! – Des libertés, avec tout le monde ! »

I don’t know exactly what Quint was much too free conveys in English. In French, Quint prenait trop de libertés in this context insinuates inappropriate sexual advances. Later, the idea that sex is behind the whole story pops up again:

To do it in ANY way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse? quelque moyen que j’employasse, je commettais un acte de violence, car que faisais-je, sinon pénétrer d’une idée de grossièreté et de culpabilité une petite créature sans défense qui m’avait révélé la possibilité de rapports délicieux ?

I put the French beside the English because the translation enforces the sexual innuendos. The obtrusion of the idea of grossness becomes pénétrer d’une idée de grossièreté, which sounds quite strange in French. Furthermore, beautiful intercourse becomes rapports délicieux in French, which has an even stronger sexual connotation than in English. Our governess also refers to behaviours which are against nature:

Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature.

All in all, these hints scattered through the text led me into thinking that Miss Jessel and Quint were accomplice and children molesters. I thought that Miles tried to talk about it in school and got expelled for daring to mention such things in school. The children are both described as beautiful and even the governess’s love for her pupil Miles sounded weird and unhealthy. See in the quote here before, she says “MY boy” with my in capital letters when she refers to Miles. How can she be so attached to him in such a short time? It doesn’t sound like maternal love but a feeling as possessive as the one a lover could feel. And when she makes strange comparisons like this…

We continued silent while the maid was with us – as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter.

…it enforces the idea of non-maternal love, doesn’t it?

I can’t help seeing the ghosts as metaphors of the terrible memories of abused children. Is it a final stroke of rationalism? Is it real or does it just means that I can’t accept the idea of a ghost story, that I have to find a rational explanation for it? I don’t have the answer.

Now, why was I so bored when I read it? Clearly, the style was a problem for me. You can’t write gripping ghost stories when you write Proustian sentences. It’s fantastic to describe subtle feelings but it lacks the proper rhythm to build the tension. At least, that’ show I felt. I imagine that in appearance, James was writing for money a story that was fashionable. After all, they were interested in the occult at the time. It wasn’t even creepy, it was just flat and boring compared to Le Horla by Maupassant, for example. However, writing this billet made me think about it and see that there’s more to it than a basic ghost story. And our governess may be an unreliable narrator. Who can attest of her sanity, after all? Perhaps everything happened in her head? She may be mad. And then all my theory about children abuse falls apart…

PS: here’s a fascinating review at The Argumentative Old Git.

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